The Best Job for a Trivia-Loving English Major
In an unassuming building on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City, Michele Silverman Loud, J91, swipes her ID badge and makes her way inside.
“It’s kind of this secret place that we work in,” says Loud, who for 14 years has been part of an exclusive team of writers who create clues for America’s favorite quiz show. “Very few people have actually seen the Jeopardy! library, but it is probably the best unknown library and research center in the country,” she says.
Since the American quiz show cheating scandals of the 1950s, when producers of Twenty-One, hosted by Jack Barry, rigged games by coaching contestants, the FCC has kept a close watch on programs of this genre to ensure their integrity.
While Loud can’t get specific about what she writes, she can tell you this—it’s the best job she never knew existed.
“I always watched Jeopardy!, but it somehow never occurred to me that there was a room full of people behind the scenes coming up with the questions,” she says. “I certainly didn’t think Alex Trebek made them up, but I had just never really thought about it.”
After graduating from Tufts in 1991, Loud returned home to California to pursue a career in journalism, though finding a job proved to be tough. Then she saw a job opening to be a Jeopardy! researcher, providing two independent sources for every clue the writers produce.
It turns out that researchers were tested just like potential contestants, a road she had been down twice before—once as a freshman at Tufts, and the second time just a week prior to applying for the job. Of course, the test is different each time.
Though the producers told Loud she did very well, she didn’t get the job. Her résumé, however, was put on file and when a similar position opened up a year later, Jeopardy! came calling.
She was working as an editorial assistant at a medical device magazine at the time, and the day after she got offered the new position, she was supposed to be having her one-year review. “When I told my boss about the job, he said ‘Jeopardy!?’ Oddly enough, I had the presence of mind to say, ‘Yes, America’s favorite game of answers and questions.’ ”
Loud worked as a researcher for three and a half years before joining the writing staff.
“I was lucky, because at the time they were expanding the writing staff to do a couple of offshoots of classic Jeopardy!, including a children’s version called Jep!,” she says. She was called on to write clues for that, a rock-and-roll Jeopardy! and the classic Jeopardy!, too.
Though it is a 9-to-5 job, being a writer at the show is anything but typical. Part of what makes the Jeopardy! writer positions so coveted, aside from the obvious allure of television, is the creative freedom, she says.
“Occasionally the executive producer or Alex Trebek will come to us with an idea for a category or a category title, but for the most part, as a writer, you have the freedom to say, ‘Today I feel like writing a category on children’s literature or John Cusack movies,’ and just run with it.”
Unlike other game shows that go on a hiatus between seasons, Loud says the show’s eight writers and seven researchers work year round to keep up with the demand. “We tape five shows a day, so material gets eaten up pretty quickly,” she says.
While clue writing is a fairly solitary process, says Loud, the writers’ group comes together regularly to look over sets of games, making sure that clues are fairly paired with their monetary value based on the level of difficulty and tightening up any questions to ensure clarity, as well as assigning the daily doubles.
“Our meetings are simultaneously silly and academic,” she says. “All of the writers are characters, with most of us coming from an English major background. We all have an intellectual curiosity and love to play games, so we often are testing our material out on one another.”
Casual Day at Jeopardy!
Loud says when most people find out she is a Jeopardy! writer, the normal reaction is to either ask about Alex Trebek or share a personal Jeopardy! anecdote.
“Alex Trebek is much different than you would think he would be in person,” she says. “The funny thing about seeing him in the office for the first time is that he is dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and not impeccably dressed in a suit, the way you see him on the show.”
She says he’s the first one to say that, of course, he knows all the answers: he has them in front of him. “He is very warm and friendly, and he loves talking to the audience and taking questions,” Loud says.
Though she has written thousands of clues, Loud has a favorite: In 1929 William Dreyer and Joseph Edy created this ice cream flavor, named in part to reflect the times ahead—a fact discovered on the back label of a gallon of Dreyer’s ice cream. (Answer: What is Rocky Road?)
“Everything I read or see on TV or watch in a movie is fair game. I feel like whenever I’m out doing something, I may stumble on a fact.”
Once the clues are out of her hands, it is anyone’s guess as to when they will actually air. For some of the less seasonal categories, like history or geography, it could be years before they see the light of day.
“For each day of taping, we have six games ready instead of the necessary five. Then the five that are played that day are chosen at random by outside standards and practices,” she says. “We also have more contestants on hand than we need, so except for the returning champion, you have three people being picked for the other two spots. And it’s a random assignment of game and contestants, so you just don’t know.”
In other words, if there’s a lawyer who gets a law category, “it’s pure coincidence and luck,” Loud says.
And if you think the writers try to come up with questions that are impossible to answer, Loud says think again.
“With a good clue you don’t want to stump everyone in the room,” she says. “What’s the fun in that?”
A Brilliant Education
Besides writing clues, Loud and the other writers sit in during tapings to make judgment calls on contestants’ answers.
“Some of us are on stage at the judges’ table, with the bulk of the staff standing by to do instant research,” she says. “If someone gives an answer we weren’t anticipating, whether it’s initially ruled right or wrong, we want to make sure that we do the right thing and play a fair game. So we try, whenever possible, to do instant research.”
Loud credits her liberal arts background for providing her with the perfect setup for Jeopardy!
“A Tufts education is just a good, well-rounded background to have in terms of working at Jeopardy!,” she says. She notes that writing headlines at the Tufts student newspaper the Observer didn’t hurt either. Just as a limited number of letters can fit in a newspaper headline, the clues she writes for Jeopardy! have to squeeze in the game board squares—a limit of 7 lines of 17 characters per clue.
Loud says her Jeopardy! experience has been useful when there is a need for trivia outside the studio: “All of the writers have settled many a bet for family and friends, because if one of us doesn’t know something off the top of our head, we certainly know how to look it up—although my dad tells me that Google is putting me out of business in that arena.”
Kaitlin Provencher can be reached at email@example.com.